Nirvana’s Nevermind, which is now 25 years old, didn’t kick off the “grunge” movement and lead singer Kurt Cobain’s suicide didn’t kill grunge either. Embers burned long after that particular fire went out and there was smoke long before anyone outside of Seattle saw a thing. Like Steve Jobs, the father of the smartphone and the digital music player who didn’t technically invent either of those things, Cobain is viewed as a pioneer instead of as a popularizer. That label-switch shouldn’t take too much away from Cobain (whose off-the-charts talent and rapid success helped create daylight for other Seattle bands to run toward — with good and bad returns), but it should remind people that there was life before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the Seattle sound.
Also, though it effectively conveys that you’re talking about the cultural moment that occurred in the Seattle indie music scene in the ’80s and early ’90s, grunge is kind of a bullsh*t label that gets applied broadly to any band that came out of the Pacific Northwest with a record deal in the early 1990s. Metal, punk, rock, and alternative bands all seem to get slapped with that label even if Nirvana’s success tilted people’s view toward thinking that grunge was shorthand for, “Sounds like Nirvana.” But of course, so many bands in Seattle didn’t.
While both Mother Love Bone and Nirvana shared a vague geographic connection, and operated in the same space for an ever so brief moment as the Seattle scene swelled and prepared to burst, the two bands were nothing alike. Both Cobain and Mother Love Bone lead singer Andy Wood had an affinity for Kiss while growing up, but it was Wood who stood out from the pack and fully embraced that influence.
Mentioned in the same breath as Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth, and Gary Numan by peers, Wood was poised to ride the imminent release of Mother Love Bone’s debut LP, Apple, to become the Seattle sound’s first breakout star. He craved that kind of success and it seemed as though it was his destiny, but instead, he tragically passed away on March 19, 1990 following a heroin overdose. Wood was just 24 years old. His death changed everything years before it allegedly got its start.
“Music Sets The Sick Ones Free”
While visions of swaying depressives in their grunge uniforms — flannel, chunky boots, unwashed hair — are tied in memory to the ’90s, the true roots of the Seattle sound movement reach down into the mid-’80s club scene. With bands like the Melvins (whose style provided an early road map for Nirvana), The U-Men, Green River (featuring future Mother Love Bone bassist Jeff Ament and guitar player Stone Gossard), and Soundgarden ruling the stage, these clubs existed as Petri dishes for punk and metal fans to gather and in some cases, make the short trip from the crowd to the stage.
Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil described the scene in Kim Neely’s book, Five Against One:
“There was a certain trippy specialness, you know? You’d go check out all of your friends, the guys in Green River and Skin Yard and the Melvins, and it was just sort of like, ‘Wow this is cool.'”
It wasn’t always harmonious, though. In Greg Prato’s “Grunge Is Dead,” Michelle Ahern-Crane details a concert at Gorilla Garden where punk rockers and rockers tussled and Wood was picked “up by his white fur coat” and tossed against a fence. Despite the occasional hint of a division between the two factions, the goal for many was the same: Experiment and create music.
Kevin Wood, Andy Wood’s brother and eventual bandmate with seminal scene band, Malfunkshun, spoke about the early days of the scene to Legendary Rock Interviews:
“Sometimes there would be experiments. I remember a band called Culprit played with a band that featured some guys from The Fartz, I don’t think they were The Fartz at that time but it was Blaine Cook and Paul Solger. Anyway, they were like the top punk band and Culprit was the top metal band and they had some kind of show at a skating rink in Bellevue and it was like a battle between the punk and metal guys. Everyone got along and all but it was just kind of an experiment to see what would happen when you got the two worlds together like that.”
Another goal was, doubtlessly, to find a bigger audience, even if it wasn’t foremost on everyone’s mind.
Sub Pop Records co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman get a lot of deserved praise for having the foresight to sign Soundgarden and Nirvana in the late ’80s, hastening their eventual jump to major labels and a bigger audience, but Chris Hanzsek was the first one to try and trap the Seattle sound in a bottle for mass distribution. The producer and engineer on Green River’s 1985 album, Come on Down (the first “grunge” record), Hanzsek later started C/Z Records with Tina Casale and recruited Green River, the Melvins, Soundgarden, U-Men, Skin Yard, and Malfunkshun to participate in the Deep Six compilation album, which was released in March of 1986.